“You might make it further if you learn to stay”
Oh, the sweet innocence of 22!
I had just started my career as a journalist writing for a tiny magazine that published my opinion piece every month. In one of the issues, I wrote:
“When you are born, you have endless possibilities. But as time goes by and you make choices in life, some doors close and you find yourself with only a few possible paths. Wisdom is about not closing doors permanently”.
I was like most people my age: I wanted it all. I saw my life as an empty page for me to fill with anything I wanted. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I had to start writing on that “vast glowing empty page”. Writing means making decisions, and making decisions means closing doors. The alternative would be to not write at all, but that would mean not to live.
For all my 20s I lived like that, never making a definite decision, allowing the possibility to change course later. And all along, I had Bruce Springsteen’s words echoing in my head: “’cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”.
Run, run, run. Always the next challenge, the next place, the next adventure.
Why We Want It All
If you were immortal, nothing would matter. You wouldn’t agonize over which career to build because you could be an engineer first and a firefighter later on. You wouldn’t be forced to pick your holiday destinations carefully because, at some point, you would get everywhere.
You would be able to experience everything you ever set your mind on. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether you would experience it but rather of when. Maybe you wouldn’t experience them today, or next year. But eventually, you would get there.
But we are finite creatures.
Yet, many of us dissipate our energy on a multitude of projects. We spread ourselves thin focusing our attention on this, that, and who knows what else. Doing everything at once makes us feel limitless. There is no stopping us! Except that there is.
Directing your focus to many targets at once, or even to one single target after the other is not an effective way to do anything. It’s an effective way to make you feel exhausted and unaccomplished.
Raise your hand if you have ever read about the importance of saying “no”. It is important indeed. But only saying “no” to what you don’t want to do doesn’t mean you will automatically do what you want to do. That is just the beginning. As important as defining what you don’t want to do is defining what you want to focus your time and energy on.
As journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman mentions on this podcast: “It’s way harder than that. You have to say no to things that you do want to do. Because there are more things that matter than you have time for”.
Why We Can’t Have It All
In 2017, Alex Barron broke a record when he managed to juggle 14 balls at once. The feat is impressive but even more impressive is the fact that, as Wired explains in this video, it’s almost impossible to juggle 15 balls. Physics simply don’t allow it.
These physical limits are everywhere around us. Try pouring 2 liters of water into a 1.5-liter bottle, or squeezing your furniture into a tiny car when you move. It just doesn’t fit, and you can see it clearly.
While these are obvious examples, the limits of your own life are much harder to grasp. On average, a person lives for 72 years, which translates to more than 26,000 days, or 624,000 hours. These numbers are so big that the human brain can not process them. They are large enough to make us think, every day, that we are infinite.
Logically, we know our days are numbered. But the daily emotions have the power to trick us into thinking that we are much larger than life.
“And you’re listening to that song, and that drive with the people who you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.” — Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Without even realizing it, we let ourselves flow through life. We believe that we don’t need to act right now. That we don’t need to reclaim our focus. That we can do it all.
We fail to realize that every decision we make to spend an hour doing something is also a decision to not spend that hour doing something else. Oliver Burkeman puts it simply: “Every path you choose, you’re choosing to avoid another path. It’s painful, but it’s also unavoidable, there is nothing that can be done about that, it’s built into being finite”.
What You Can Do About It
If you’re finite, the latter part of your life will come at some point. But before it does, you want to make sure you spend the days you do have doing the right thing.
Warren Buffett uses a trick known as the 5/25 rule. It’s incredibly simple but strongly powerful, and you can replicate it right now. Write down a list of 25 goals you have in life. Identify the 5 most important ones and focus on them while avoiding the other 20 like the plague.
These 20 are the ones to which it is really hard to say no. They are the ones more likely to distract you from your 5 top priorities. As Oliver Burkeman puts it, “it takes quite a lot to resist those because they are not unimportant”.
Important life decisions are not about choosing between a good thing and a bad one. If you love ice cream but hate cake, given the two options your choice would be very easy and clear. But what if you were offered a strawberry ice cream and a blueberry one, which one would you choose?
As I got older, another lyric from a dear artist started playing in my mind more often than Springsteen’s. This one is from Brandi Carlile, from her song “The eye”, and it goes like this:
“You might make it further if you learn to stay”
If you stay in one place and nurture your connections there. If you stay with one project and drive it until the end. If you stay with your convictions when the whole world is against you. If you stay with your top goal, even when you’re seduced by all the others that are also important to you.
You are finite. But you have 72 years, 26,000 days, 624,000 hours. That’s a lot of time to start making the right decisions. Start now.